Public values, governance and community energy: lessons from the US and UK

A major part of the shift to a low carbon economy will inevitably involve the active participation of local government, community groups, and more local forms of decision making. In theory, local level discussion can provide a practicable and also more democratic means through which to deliver carbon reduction and more efficient energy use at individual, household and community levels.  Introducing this form of ‘localism’ into our energy system can also be an effective means through which to increase comfort, health, and fuel equity, and creating new jobs and services.  Political inertia at national and international level has further highlighted the importance of encouraging local level action as one of the ‘drivers’ for engaging with broader system level changes, particularly in developing infrastructural and behaviour pathways around more efficient and cleaner energy supply/consumption options.

Until recently, discussions about energy systems have been confined almost exclusively to an elite body of planners, engineers, economists and other technical professions.  The insular nature of the discourse which has consolidated around energy supply and consumption has been based upon a number of factors, perhaps the most important being the technical requirements of a system capable of delivering the prodigious amounts of energy understood as a requisite condition for the development of modern society.  In contrast, the forums in which the shaping and transmission of opinions about a community energy system can occur can be many and varied, encompassing both top-down or institutional vehicles for articulating and aggregating community views as well as more ‘organic’ or bottom-up examples of the public sphere.  The former might include local government institutions such as cities or counties in the case of the US, or local authorities in the case of the UK, as well as spatially or economically defined entities such as the service territory or a municipal or cooperative utility.

These developments suggest the possibilities for the emergence of a new form of ‘energy governance’; one which holds the the possibilities for a broader system change based more around more grassroots approaches to sustainability and more efficient use of resources. In the UK for instance, the emergence of a more locally based system of provision suggests that the Coalition Government’s ‘Big Society’ agenda will now encourage a renewed ‘governance of localism’ in which citizens, communities and local government are given ‘the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want’ (The Cabinet Office, 2010).

The development of a community energy system often generates a great deal of debate about both the degree of public support for such programmes and also the values around which programmes ought to be organized.  In fact, the more cynical amongst us might note that, whilst political rhetoric (at both national and local governance level) may ‘talk the talk’ of community inclusion and greater grassroots influence on policy, the extent to which it truly enables effective community participation or collaborative action is often debatable.  Community energy programmes which are led by local authorities or local governing administrations in particular, raise important issues regarding the energy choice problem, including both process and outcome issues.

Part of an ongoing research collaboration I have been involved in with the University of St Thomas in Minnesota, has been based upon an exploration of some of the normative aspects involved in the development of community energy programmes at local governance level in both the US and the UK, particularly the ways in which the role of public values serves to highlight the political organization and tensions around such projects.  To explain this idea briefly, whilst local governance programmes might claim the involvement and active participation of public engagement in community oriented energy projects – an increasing tendency given broader political concerns around legitimacy, credibility and inclusion – there is often a tension between the principles of public administration (public value) i.e. efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity, and a more civic understanding of inclusion, democracy, and participation (public values).

Research findings from the US and in the UK suggest for instance, that the term ‘community energy’ is a flexible concept in these regards, both with respect to the principles behind various programmes and also in terms of the operational practices supporting their implementation.  In both countries, discussions based on ‘the public use of reason’ and opinions which emerge from civil society form an interesting juxtaposition and contestation around the prioritization and interrelationship between ‘public value’ and ‘public values’.  Thus, whilst Pine River in the US has developed community energy programmes with a fairly visible degree of ‘collective decision making’ and ‘user democracy’, others have preferred to administer from a much narrower perspective.  For instance, whilst Minnesota’s GreenStep Cities Programme is operated in partnership with a number of local, non-governmental organizations, the overarching ethos (and the power to oversee this particular agenda) is clearly aligned to delivering public services in the most efficient and cost-effective manner possible; emphasising aims relating to the reduction of budgetary outlays and enhancing cost effectiveness. Programmes displaying these institutional norms have tended to exclude much community engagement and civic discussion.  There are similar findings in the UK. Whilst Oxford City Council, for instance, has more broadly embraced the values of community participation in a range of tangible ways, Woking Borough Council have favoured a top-down, technocratic approach which has largely excluded the surrounding community.

Identifying the dominant values driving a particular local government/community link up programme is potentially useful for a number of reasons.  First, it is very likely that the core public values that are driving a particular project will have a significant effect on the desired outcomes.  For instance, whilst a programme driven by the bottom-up concerns of citizens might be able to identify technical options capable of reducing carbon emissions, it is more likely to serve as a vehicle for enhancing citizen participation in determining the essential shape of the local energy system.  A top-down, technically driven programme, on the other hand, has a good chance of incentivizing energy reducing behaviours on the part of individual households and businesses.  It will do little, however, to encourage the development of organizations dedicated to bolstering the civic life of the community and may well inhibit the creation of a more broadly held set of public values about what society can expect from the energy system and the roles and responsibilities of various institutions.

– Dr. Shane Fudge, Lecturer in Energy Policy, University of Exeter

  • This piece has been adapted from a larger article which has just been published in the journal Sustainability called ‘Public values and community energy: lessons from the US and UK’  Authors involved in the original article are Hoffman S, Fudge S, Pawlisch L, High-Pippert A, Peters M. and Haskard J.

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